BirdWatching Column: When Predators Come

Published on Feb. 15, 2013 by BirdWatching

[PULL-QUOTE] “Ironically, the proliferation of bird feeders may have helped hawks adapt to urban and suburban living.”


[HED] Taking sides

[DECK] Whether you can keep Merlins, Cooper’s Hawks, and other predators from hunting in your backyard

[529/497 WORDS] Many of us think of our backyards as peaceable kingdoms in which birds feed, drink, bathe, and nest safely. But raptors and shrikes may take the concept of bird feeders literally – that is, as structures that provide birds for them to feed on.

Predators are fun to see when we’re birding, and we all understand that predation is a part of life. But once we recognize individual birds – the robin that always sings atop the spruce tree, the chickadee with the odd white head feather, the hummingbird that hovers, staring at us, when the feeder is empty – we can’t help but take sides in backyard predation.

Ironically, the proliferation of bird feeders may have helped hawks adapt to urban and suburban living. Several years ago, a pair of Merlins nested on my block in Duluth, Minnesota. At least once a day, one would rip down the street, drop barely above the sidewalk in my front yard, and bank sharply just past a thick hedge, remaining invisible from my feeders until a second before impact. And the birds caught weren’t the only victims: panicking songbirds collided with my dining-room window.

How did I deal with it? At first, I closed down my feeders, thinking that the little falcons would work out different hunting patterns within a couple of weeks. But two days after reopening shop, the Merlins were back.

So my next strategy was to move the feeder. I had my husband and kids fasten a platform feeder to the frame of what had been our worst window for collisions. Most of the birds feeding there noticed the glass and avoided it. Those that didn’t still struck the glass but were going too slow to be hurt.

Since putting up that feeder, we’ve had zero mortality at the window. The falcons took a few more birds – I consoled myself with the thought that they helped sustain a growing family – but since Merlins use a nest just once and then move on, I haven’t had the same situation again in over two decades.

Can you prevent all predation in your yard? It’s not possible. I live under Hawk Ridge, one of the Midwest’s premier hawk watches. During migration, birds of prey pass constantly. But raptors and shrikes can appear just about anywhere during migration. In summer, predatory birds nesting miles away may wander into your yard while searching for food for their young. And in winter, they roam widely as food grows scarce. Closing down feeders may reduce the number of songbirds present when a predator starts visiting regularly, but it can’t ensure that a few meals won’t be served.

Hawks and shrikes are birds, too, and they’re often indicators of good habitat. I was heartbroken when a Cooper’s Hawk killed my treasured male robin, but by the next day, his mate had replaced him. The new pair raised two more broods that summer on a high-protein diet of insects and worms. When it comes right down to it, from the invertebrate point of view, robins, too, could be considered vicious serial killers.

[BIO BOX] Laura Erickson writes and produces the radio segment and podcast “For the Birds.” She is the author of Hawk Ridge: Minnesota’s Birds of Prey, Twelve Owls, The Bird Watching Answer Book, 101 Ways to Help Birds, and other books. She was a licensed bird rehabilitator for many years. You can find more of her writing about backyard birds on our blog.